America Works Because America Works

Turning Point


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I’ve never been a fan of the Puritans. You remember, those pious, early settlers of what eventually became the United States. Puritan philosophy could never be my cup of tea (pun intended). Its prohibition of the many things that I enjoy simply doesn’t fit with the lifestyle I’ve chosen. Had I lived in their time or their colony, I surely would have been banished or at least spent much of my time in the pillory to take hits to my head from rotten tomatoes.

I’m thankful that our country evolved a more tolerant attitude to people following their own course. We need more of that in this world, for sure.

However, there is one aspect of Puritanism that has permeated our national character and even carries their name. It’s the work ethic that has been handed down through the centuries from one generation of American to the next.

I feel that most Americans possess a strong sense of this Puritan legacy, though I worry, like many of us, that time and circumstance may be diluting some of its potency. But that’s not what I want talk about. For the majority of us, work is sustenance. Money is important, but often for many Americans, it’s about the doing, as well. If we can work, we will.

I’ve come to an even greater appreciation of the American work ethic in part from conversations I’ve had with some Europeans who admire and envy us. One European described it this way: “Americans live to work, and we work to live.”

Now, I’m going to pick a little bit on Spain, not because I don’t like Spain (quite the contrary), but it is where I heard some stories to back up my thesis about how our strong work ethic is viewed there, negative and positive. In one of my conversations, the gentleman spoke of resentment for how hard we work, while  another spoke with envy for our work ethic because of the hassles he deals with trying to do international business around employees with such generous holiday and vacation schedules.

On a visit to Bilbao for the Spanish machine tool show a few years ago, I was having dinner with my host from the Spanish export office. The conversation ranged from machine tools, the show, and manufacturing. Eventually, my host began to remove some of his filters and brought the discussion to how the work ethic was ruining Spain. Spain specifically, and Europe in general, had striven for centuries to win the perks of holidays and vacation. The Americans, and he added Asians, were ruining that because they work too long and hard.

I was stuck for words. In my heart of hearts, sure, I’d love to have 30 days of vacation and upwards of 15 holidays a year, which was the social contract he was defending. But arguing was pointless—he was on a roll.

Finally, I said, “Look, the United Sates works because she needs to. Every economy in the world has a target painted on our back. We work hard and long by your standards, because that’s how we compete.”

If we can outwork the world, physically and mentally through innovation while maintaining a national environment that encourages and rewards such work, we will continue to be the envy of the world.

On the same trip, I made a visit to a cutting tool manufacturer. His company makes solid carbide cutters and was exporting to the U.S. Some of his tools were private labeled to America. His view of the Spanish social contract was quite different than my vehement dinner friend. Being a global player gave this owner a different perspective on the work ethic of countries he was doing business with.

He says it takes a lot to convince his distributors to stock enough cutting tools to last through his annual August off-month. Moreover, he says, it’s really more like 60 days because it takes 2 weeks to ramp down production and then ramp it up. That makes it tough for a business like his. But for each holiday, and there are many, 1 day actually equals 3 for ramp down and ramp up of plant production.

It’s two sides of the same coin, but in reality, it’s how unintended consequences can hurt. If I was looking for a place to invest, Spain is a wonderful country, but the United States is globally number one, in large part because we work—on many levels.